So the world and his wife had a go at poor old M & S last week, as Kate Bostock is to leave, Belinda Earl takes over as part time Style Director and the Head of Food (?) who has been there for 26 years, will become Executive Director of General Merchandise, everyone has a view on why they are doing badly.
I feel for the senior management teams at M & S I really do, but I feel for those further down the structure even more. As strategies change and new senior people are put in place, chaos reigns, hours get longer, and the desire to cut all the crap and just make nice product gets lost in a sea of endless meetings, range reviews where everything gets changed (again and again) and lengthy discussions about whats gone wrong. It’s demoralising and counter productive and everyone looses sight of what they are trying to achieve. Anyone who has ever worked in a big retail organization will have experienced this at some point in their career, as for those at the top of some big retailers, margins and profit are what count, not product and customers.
And who do I blame? Well certainly not the design and buying teams at M & S, as they have one of the hardest jobs on the High Street. They’re trying to please everyone and don’t have the luxury of selling external brands like every other department store. They have to invent specialist sub-brands to ensure they have covered the incredible number of age groups and customer profiles they are required to cater for, and as the high street becomes more niche and segmented than ever, this is a near impossible task.
So how can they become more customer focused and relevant? Well firstly they need to decide who they are and stick to it. Look at the heritage of the chain and the reasons consumers love M & S (and we do honestly!). Why do we shop there and what do we know they do well?
Ask any UK consumer what’s good about M & S and they will almost all say the same thing – lingerie, tights and socks, men’s shirts, good basics, quality classics, school uniforms and food. It’s rare that anyone will say they go there for high fashion or current trends. And here’s where I think M & S and so many other mass market UK retailers go wrong.
Stop chasing trends! Women (especially women over 40) want to look stylish rather than overtly fashionable and they DO NOT know, or in any way care that Raf Simons has left Jil Sander has gone to Dior, or that this season it’s all about the cocoon shape! The high street’s relentless quest to keep on top of catwalk looks and provide the consumer with the latest trends, means they have lost sight of what customers actually want.
Zara is currently every retailers Holy Grail and I am very very tired of hearing about how amazing they are. I have no doubt the designers and buyers at M & S (and many other retailers) are too. “Why do Zara have orange/pleated skirts/coloured trousers etc etc, and we don’t ” is a familiar question in many a buying office/design studio and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to scream back, because they are Zara and we are ……….(insert name of struggling UK high st retailer).
Zara currently have 95 stores in the UK and there is no doubt they are excellent at what they do. They are experts at copying from the catwalks and getting wearable versions onto the high street very quickly, and good for them if that’s what you want, but perhaps not everyone does. I suspect the Zara customer is quite young, cost conscious and desperate for a new look every few weeks/months.
M & S have 703 stores in the UK, their core womenswear customer is 40 plus and she wants quality, wearable fashion and probably doesn’t give two hoots about the ‘latest thing‘. If you are an avid reader of Grazia and obsessed with wearing the latest hot boho chic/camouflage utility look, where are you going to go to find it – not M & S, that’s for sure.
We work in fashion and we certainly don’t want the latest ‘thing’, especially not a bad version of it – we want well made clothes that take current trends into account, but only if they are relevant to our age group. Who needs a peplum at our age – why would we?
M & S will never ever be cool and they need to stop trying, John Lewis will never be cool and they don’t even bother to try. The fact that they know who they are are makes John Lewis one of the most aspirational stores on the British High St – clever that isn’t it. It’s all about being true to yourself and respecting and knowing your customer.
Visit the fashion floor at John Lewis on Oxford street, the Waitrose in the basement, or the haberdashery dept and you can positively feel the “never knowingly undersold” message of trust and belonging resonating in everything they do, from the customer service to the quality of the product. As someone once said “if the world is about to end, head for the haberdashery dept at John Lewis, nothing bad can ever happen there”.
Visit M & S on Oxford street and you feel confused and depressed. Too much product with ‘added value detail’ in badly merchandised areas, that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 70’s department store. It just doens’t feel like they know who they are, or who their customer is. The collections aimed at the older customer are just downright dowdy and boring, the fashion forward ranges just feel wrong and out of place. And as for Per Una, the range that’s somewhere in the middle, don’t get me started!
What is the answer? Well thats a whole other post/six months research and a huge challenge for the M & S team. But to start with, please M & S, stop chasing trends and get to know and respect your customers, because at the end of the day, we all love you and really really want to buy from you – but we don’t want peplums!